Illustration of viewer capturing and liking a photo of people exercising in a gym.

By now, you've probably heard that social media can be bad for you.1 From the countless hours spent scrolling and refreshing to the potentially addictive behavior to which it can lead, apps like Facebook and Instagram sometimes get a bad rap for their negative influence.

But does that tell the whole story? Social media can be a stressful experience2 for some people, but studies have shown it also helps relieve stress for others. And while some prominent Instagram users have been accused of promoting unrealistic body images and beauty standards,3 other accounts act as powerful tools for finding positive reinforcement and motivation.4

So how do you find the right balance? Which social media posts and accounts are more likely to motivate us to get healthy and stay fit? To help shed some light on this controversial topic, we looked at the social media trends inspiring people to find fitness plans and dieting advice that work for them and surveyed over 1,000 people about their thoughts on these trends. Read on as we explore the positive correlation between social media and your health and fitness.

Digital Inspiration

Chart showing percentage of people who feel motivated to be health by various types of social media posts.

"Fitspo" (short for "fitness inspiration") isn't just a trending hashtag on social media; it can mean serious income for certain popular influencer accounts.5 In a world where a single Instagram post can land influencers thousands of dollars in ad revenue,6 it's easy to see why so many "fitgram" accounts produce perfectly curated content designed to awe and inspire.

But despite their millions of followers and big-name endorsement deals, influencers don't always have the most motivating workout routines or yoga poses – it's the people you know in real life.

According to our survey, 69 percent of people said they considered their friends' fitness posts on social media as the biggest inspiration to stay healthy. Sixty-four percent suggested their friends' dieting posts were also a positive influence, the same percentage of people who said they were inspired by influencers and their workout pictures and videos.

In some cases, people can even provide their own "fitspo" when it comes to social media. Forty-three percent of respondents were inspired by their own workout posts, followed by 41 percent who said their personal dieting posts helped keep them motivated.

Chart showing female BMI vs frequency of health-related social media posts.

Feeling accountable to your fitness goals is often a powerful form of motivation.7 Setting rewards for yourself at certain checkpoints along your fitness journey is one way to make sure you stay on track, and just working out with a partner can help you feel more obligated to the goals you've set for yourself.

As it turns out, social media can have a similar effect. Sustaining a healthy fitness lifestyle when life's other obligations start to get in the way isn't always easy, but people who make a point to post about their workout routines or dieting efforts online may be creating their own form of personal accountability.

The differences were more apparent among the female fitness enthusiasts surveyed.

Women who posted about their exercise or fitness habits five or more times each week had a lower average BMI than those who posted less frequently or never. Think about it: More motivation usually leads to better fitness routines, which generally lead to improved results. Plus, others will see how fantastic you look and may follow your lead.

Unfortunately, merely showing up at the gym and posing for a few selfies won't replace hard work and time, but go ahead and snap a few shots during or between sets for an extra piece of motivation. Your BMI may thank you during your next visit with a health care professional.

Power of Engagement

Chart showing percentage in each weight range who receive positive community support on their health posts.

Sometimes, it isn't just seeing pictures of yourself working out or eating healthy on your social media feed that has the potential to help motivate your fitness journey; it can also be the engagement on those posts that helps you feel encouraged about your personal path.

Regardless of body type, roughly half of all respondents reported receiving positive and encouraging feedback, and most of us adore reading and hearing such comments.

But let's face the fact that everyone has a different body type. Suggesting people should compare themselves to 6-foot, rail-thin runway models or bodybuilders with extremely low body fat levels is unrealistic.

Nearly 55 percent of those considered underweight by BMI indexes reported receiving positive feedback from their workout posts – the most of any body type. Slightly over 45 percent of those with a healthy weight index received positive feedback, as did 43 percent of overweight indexes and nearly 45 percent of those in the obese category.

Literal #Fitspo Success

Chart showing success rates of workout and diet plans found through social media.

Every social media network has its quirks. Twitter posts can't exceed a certain length,8 which can make it harder to have long conversations about health. Instagram allows users to express themselves with an image or video, reinforcing the saying that "a picture is worth a thousand words." Facebook traditionally offers users multiple ways to engage with content they enjoy, but the connection can sometimes be less personalized or intimate.9

Those differences can change the way you interact with the content shared on each social media platform, especially where health and wellness are concerned. People surveyed were more likely to try social media workouts (50 percent) over diets (34 percent). And while Facebook was typically the most popular outlet for finding inspiration on both parts of the fitness journey, people tended to have the most success with the diets and exercises they found on Instagram.

Personal Perspectives

Chart showing percentage of social media users posting about their health online.

To understand what drives people to share their personal stories online, we asked them to describe what inspired them to post updates about their health and wellness on social media.

Using their responses, we found the most common reasons for posting or not posting. Overall, their responses represented the powerful potential of finding positive reinforcement online and community as a means of support and accountability.

The people surveyed most often said they posted to encourage others. Most people have friends who love to work out, and we certainly gain motivation from them, but think of the friends who need your help too! Encouraging people to get off the couch and burn more calories may be just the lift they need to get started on their own wellness goals.

Respondents also said their posts led to more motivation. Demonstrating our success for others is great, but at the end of the day, deciding to adopt a healthy lifestyle is between you and you. If posting a few snapshots of yourself on a hike, on the tennis court, or in the gym helps keep you on track, then keep on smiling.

Reasons for not posting included wanting to maintain privacy, assuming others didn't care about personal fitness endeavors, and a general lack of social media use.

Finding Your Inspiration

Not everyone has the same experience using social media for fitness inspiration. In some cases, the accounts, celebrities, or influencers you might follow could be glamorizing unhealthy or unrealistic standards of beauty that leave you feeling self-conscious or even depressed. On the other hand, many of the people polled recounted positive experiences of feeling encouraged and motivated by the comments and feedback on their posts when they were willing to open up and share about their own health and wellness.

Ultimately, social media has the potential to connect you with a community of people trying to accomplish goals similar to yours and could be the self-accountability guide you need. People who posted online more about their diets or exercise habits were more likely to have a healthy BMI compared to people who didn't share similar posts. Even if you're nervous about oversharing, you could be missing out by assuming there's nothing positive to be gleaned by saving a status or two for your personal brand of fitness inspiration.

Methodology

We surveyed 1,008 people with at least one social media account using Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Of these respondents, 49 percent were men, and 51 percent were women. The respondents ranged in age from 18 to 75 with an average of 38 and a standard deviation of 10.1.

Parts of this study use the body mass index measure, which uses a person's height and weight. It does not measure body fat directly, but research has shown it to be moderately correlated with more direct measures of body fat. Respondents were separated into the following BMI categories based on information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC categories are as follows:

  • Underweight = BMI below 18.5
  • Normal or Healthy Weight = BMI of 18.5 to 24.9
  • Overweight = BMI of 25.0 to 29.9
  • Obese = BMI of 30.0 or above

When identifying which social media platforms used to locate successful workouts and diets, respondents were given the following options:

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • Snapchat
  • Pinterest
  • Other

"Other" and Snapchat were excluded from our visualization of the data due to low sample sizes for those two options.

When calculating the top reasons for posting or not posting about health and fitness on social media, we separated respondents into groups based on whether they said they did or didn't post. Then, we categorized their write-in responses into reasons. Finally, we found the reasons with the most respondents for both groups.

Fair Use Statement

Looking to find your own positive community for health and fitness? This content is available for noncommercial reuse. However, we ask that when sharing this content you include a link back to the author and this study so that people can explore the full project and its methodology.

Sources

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2Brown, J. (2018). Is Social Media Bad For You? The Evidence and the Unknowns. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180104-is-social-media-bad-for-you-the-evidence-and-the-unknowns

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http://time.com/4459153/social-media-body-image/

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https://www.harpersbazaar.com/beauty/diet-fitness/g4018/inspiring-fitness-girls-on-instagram/

5Bobila, M. (2017). The Business of Being a Fitness Influencer. Retrieved from

https://fashionista.com/2017/05/fitness-influencers-workout-instagram-marketing

6O'Connor, C. (2017). Earning Power: Here's How Much Top Influencers Can Make on Instagram and YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2017/04/10/earning-power-heres-how-much-top-influencers-can-make-on-instagram-and-youtube/#4eb7c45424db

7Springer, S.H. (2017). Accountability With Physical Fitness Goals. Retrieved fromhttps://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/free-range-psychology/201702/accountability-physical-fitness-goals

8Heisler, Y. (2018). Twitter's 280 Character Limit Increased Engagement Without Increasing the Average Tweet Length. Retrieved from

https://bgr.com/2018/02/08/twitter-character-limit-280-vs-140-user-engagement/

9Sitkins, P. (2016). What is the Difference Between Facebook and Instagram? Retrieved from

https://www.business2community.com/instagram/difference-facebook-instagram-01666068